The End of the World

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With Mom’s present safely secured within Miki’s belongings, all that was left to do for the day was watch an evening performance of Rainbow Troops. Miki had only managed to buy the tickets this morning because he had been so caught up with work lately. By a stroke of luck, he obtained three very good orchestra level seats that must have cost him a lot of money to acquire.

I had read the play’s brochure a few days ago, which gave me a brief explanation of the story. The play was Indonesia’s first musical production that had managed to garner international acclamation. It was based on a popular book about the life and times of a group of children living near the seaside. In other words, it was going to be the most boring play I have ever watched.

While the three of us searched for our seats, Miki suddenly scowled and fanned the air in front of his face. While Mom wasn’t looking, he whispered to me, “Ugh, I think someone just farted. Can you smell that?”

“Uh…not really?” At any rate, I know now that my sense of smell was gone for good. At least things weren’t going to get worse…and I probably just jinxed it, didn’t I?

“Seriously? It’s still lingering around – ah, now it’s gone.”

“Miki! What are you talking about with James? Hurry up – our seats aren’t going to come to us!” Mom moved towards the three empty seats that she pointed at and promptly sat down. For once, I thought with relief, Mom wasn’t complaining about the crowds or our incapability to find our seats faster.

Mom grew up surrounded by old Indonesian pop tunes inspired by the on-going Western genres of disco, rock-and-roll, and everything else in between, so I never knew why she had stuck to liking musicals so much. I had never seen her buy any of the collection of Broadway cassettes and CDs she had, so I was convinced that perhaps her mother or father had gotten them for her.

From the day I could recognise sounds and differentiate songs from one another, Mom had always loved to listen to those popular Broadway tunes. Whenever she thought that no one was around, she would sing along in a horribly out-of-tune voice. I remember laughing at her desperate attempt to imitate the singer from Phantom of the Opera and getting hit on the head afterwards. Never again did I laugh – at least when she was around.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Mom said happily, flipping the pages of the programme book that she had gotten at the theatre’s store. “It’s been so long since I’ve watched something decent, and to think that it would be our country’s own musical!”

“Mom,” I began, “How do you know that it’s good if you’ve never watched it before –“

“Of course I know! I’ve bought the CD weeks ago and listened to the songs!”

Before I could get caught up in her conversation – I’ll leave the talking and agreeing to Miki instead – I tried to find something else of interest. In the end, I settled with observing my surroundings. The ceiling above my head was at least five times as tall as my dorm room, and the whole place could definitely fit more than twenty of it. I could see many red linen chairs surrounding us, filled up to its capacity with other theatregoers. The main stage was several metres away, a simple wooden-floored surface, but the props that adorned it looked authentic. There was a wire fence at the back, obscuring several small factory buildings; to the sides were machines of unknown use; closer to the front, a sign that said “Keep Out: Danger Zone” stood above rickety-looking stands. If I didn't know better, I had come to watch a suspenseful action flick-turned-musical.

Suddenly, a large green rectangle appeared in front of my face. I jumped back a bit and followed the hand holding a pack of minty chewing gums to Miki. Although he wore a grin, I could tell that he wasn’t too pleased with being the only victim of Mom’s long-winded discussions about the greatness of the musical theatre genre in general. I grinned back sheepishly at him, hoping that he’d excuse me for deserting him. My grin widened as he sighed in acknowledgement – I had been forgiven.

“Want one?” he asked as he took one out and proceeded to munch on it. Did he forget that I can’t taste a thing? I wondered as I reluctantly accepted his offer and threw the gum into my mouth. Still nothing.

Thirty tasteless chews later, the lights above me dimmed down to half of its original strength. The crowd noises were slowly brought down to a mere collective hum, preceded only by hissing shushes and excited whispers.

“The show’s starting! Stop talking!” Mom whispered excitedly as if she was twenty years younger. I smiled at her enthusiasm – musicals were one of those rare things that made Mom more like a human and less like a dictator – but I also dreaded the beginning of the play.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a booming voice echoed from an unknown source, “welcome to the Golden Shell Theatre! We will now begin our performance of Rainbow Troops. Please turn off all cell phones and other mobile devices prior to the show. Please refrain from using flash photography throughout the performance. Thank you for your attention, and enjoy the show!”

The announcement was followed by hearty applauses that took the whole place like a thunderstorm, but I was sure that no one had ever paid attention to the actual message. Moments later, after the roaring reception died down, the eager pounding of a drum resounded, followed by the rest of the orchestra accompanying the play.

The first instance of voices belonged to a couple of men wearing miner hats and dancing across the stage. They sang a catchy tune about…mining…and threw around their pickaxes in a fast-paced pattern. Then a woman burst into the scene, echoing the original melody that the men sang, but with different lyrics.

Her powerful and vibrant voice reminded me of that one day when I came home from middle school after a particularly nasty fight with one of the older bullies. Miki came to pick me up and gave me an unsympathetic scolding, never forgetting to repeat the things that Mom would do when she finds out about it.

When we reached the front door, we heard one of Mom’s Broadway tunes – specifically, Don't Cry For Me, Argentina from the musical Evita, her favourite song. On nights when Mr. Salim didn't come home until very early in the morning, before she slept, she would put on this song and sing along in a small, mellow voice. It somehow became a routine for her to sing and a routine for us to listen for a while behind her room’s door before we made our way to our own rooms.

That day, though, the song was so loud that we could hear it from outside the house. That day, Mom was not in the kitchen trying to cook something; nor was she in the living room, watching an old show that she had missed years ago. She wasn’t in her room either, but with the sound of running water coming from the bathroom, we knew where she was and could only find out what she was doing when we peered in through the bathroom door –

That’s no longer important, I told myself as I shifted my attention back to the play. The singer’s voice was amazing, and the orchestra was playing so well…

And a sudden pause?

Much to my surprise, the orchestra stopped playing abruptly. Not only was that the only shock: the faint hum that always accompanied a theatre was completely absent. I glanced around in confusion, wondering if I was the only one who found this strange. Mom and Miki’s eyes, along with several others’ were glued intently to the stage.

“Mom,” I whispered as low as I could, “is this normal?”

She turned towards me and placed a finger in front of her lips in a hushing motion. Her scowling face stunned me to silence, but I took that action for granted. If a musical aficionado like her believed that having no sound in the play was normal, then I might as well just accept it and go with the flow.

I decided to hide my bewilderment and continue watching, ignoring the lack of sound. But I was not an idiot: it took me only a few seconds to realise that I was the odd-one out amongst the spectators. I had heard the music and dialogue just fine before; why couldn’t I hear them now?

The story moved along, but my mind never moved with it. It was still stuck at the preshow announcement and refused to shift gears. When Mom and Miki grinned and opened their mouths in a laughing gesture, I didn’t follow them. I did have the decency to clap along when I saw the others clap. For the most part, though, I had never felt as blank as I felt while watching a musical that was supposedly so happy that it could coax a satisfied smile on Mom’s face.

I had been so lost in thought that I failed to notice the curtains close and the people around me stand up. It was the end of the first act, but I felt like I had never seen the story unfold. If I had to compare the experience, it was like watching a soundless pantomime that you couldn’t understand because you were lacking an important detail.

And that one important detail just happened to be my hearing.

Should I be more upset about this? So far, I’ve lost my taste buds and smelling, so losing my hearing shouldn’t be much of a difference. Except that it actually was a big deal.

So I did the only reasonable thing that my brain could come up with after it snapped back to life. I screamed.

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